the news frontier

Q&A: David Plotz, Editor of Slate, on Aggregation

“It was never simply an act of summarizing.”
May 18, 2011

Last week, CJR released a new report by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, entitled “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of journalism.” To supplement Chapter Six, which takes a close look at the topic of news aggregation, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with David Plotz, editor of Slate, one of the first online-only magazines to appear on the web. Aggregated news—first in the form of “Today’s Papers,” and later refigured as “The Slatest”—has been a popular feature of Slate since its earliest years. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

When did you start the “Today’s Papers” feature?

“Today’s Papers” started, I believe, a year after we launched, in 1997. A journalist named Scott Shuger, who actually died in 2002 in a diving accident, was our first “Today’s Papers” writer. We actually asked Matt Drudge to do it, but Drudge recommended Scott. But in fact, in our very first issue, the very first thing we did was, we had a column called “In Other Magazines,” which I wrote. That was an aggregation of what was in the main print magazines. The notion was, we would read Time and Newsweek and all the others so you wouldn’t have to bother—so you wouldn’t have to go to your doctor’s office. I remember I used to come in on Sundays and get faxes—they would fax me their print editions, and I would write it up.

So we were doing aggregation right from the very first day of Slate. We actually also added a blog aggregation feature that we ran in 2001 or so, and an international newspaper aggregation feature called “International Papers,” which has run sporadically ever since 1997. But “Today’s Papers” became the most important and best version of that in the first years of Slate.

So what was the reaction to those features in the industry at the time? What was the prevailing attitude towards aggregation in general?

I’ll focus on “Today’s Papers,” because that was the best and most widely read of our aggregation features. That was a very beloved feature for many years, because it was really an act of media criticism, more than it was an act of repurposing someone else’s content. What looked at the way newspapers were covering stories, and compare and contrast and frame the news for people. It was never simply an act of finding the one story on the front page of the Times and summarizing it; it was about contrasting how news coverage was happening in different papers. That was a very interesting and valuable service in its time, and it was widely read by people in the newspaper business.

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What went into the decision to discontinue “Today’s Papers” and launch “The Slatest,” which is more like a list of quick takes than a comparative essay?

We discontinued “Today’s Papers” in 2009, I believe. The reason was—while it had a wonderful life, and was written as well on the final day it ran as it was on the first day it ran—the way that people consume media had completely changed. The print newspaper had undergone a huge shift, and the print newspapers we were covering had changed dramatically during that time period—had weakened as print products and strengthened as online products. “Today’s Papers” didn’t take into account the huge influence that non-newspaper news was having on the public. “Today’s Papers” was a lovely little miniature portrait of one corner of the news, but it was a very small corner of the news that was being considered there every day. We thought we needed to reconsider how we were approaching this, and consider a broader landscape of journalism in terms of what we were collecting.

Can you talk about the mix of stories that now appear on “The Slatest”? There always seem to be the big world news stories, and also a mix of smaller, weirder, more entertaining stories.

It’s always been a distinct mix of top news—obligatory news—and weird things. The weird things were fun and valuable, and probably Josh Voorhees, who writes “The Slatest” now, will continue to do some of those. But it’s not intended to be a “news of the weird” feature; it’s intended to be a feature which is a very smart, entertaining brief on the most interesting stories of the day, and sometimes the most interesting stories of the day are the weirdest. But then in some weeks—for instance, the death of Osama bin Laden—it’s going to be heavily focused on the hard news.

People are living in this very news-rich environment. We are under no illusion that people are coming to Slate as their first and only news source; they’re consuming news everywhere, all over the place. When they get to Slate, they may know about Osama bin Laden’s death, they may know about Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger splitting up, they may not. But what’s critical is that they come to Slate for a sensibility, and for a kind of conversational intelligence. The voice of “The Slatest” has to be like the voice of Slate.

Looking across the industry, there are so many news digests now of this type, whether a “Cheat Sheet” kind of thing e-mailed out to readers, or a daily morning link roundup type of thing built into the website itself. Is there more of a demand for shortcuts now, from the audience? Is there just a new expectation that that’s what news websites or online magazines will do, that it’s just part of the service they have to provide for their readers?

I do think that every news operation has to focus on what it does better than other people. So I do think there’s a lot of comparative advantage happening. The people at Politico are great on a particular subject matter and a particular area, Washington, D.C. In the case of The Huffington Post, there’s a comprehensiveness, an insistence that they will be faster than anyone else. It’s not as if everyone is doing exactly the same thing—everyone is covering the same news subjects, but in different ways, doing what they do best. Part of all this is, obviously, all web journalists have the goal of keeping people on our sites. We know that they’ll be more likely to stick around if the environment is richer and more comprehensive. So part of it is that everyone wants to be “sticky.”

If you look around, everybody does some form of aggregation. Even the primary news sites, even The New York Times does things which are effectively aggregation. They don’t call it aggregation—no one calls it “aggregation,” actually—but there are blogs that round up things other people have written, and quote heavily from them, and attempt to benefit from the work that other journalists have done. What they’re doing is applying their intelligence to it. They’re saying, “The New York Times can make sense of what this blog is getting at, and frame it for you in a different way, even though this blog has done the primary work on it.”

That’s similar to what Slate is doing, and that’s, I’m sure, what Arianna says The Huffington Post is doing, is that you’re providing something that’s more useful to your readers than the original source material may have been. So that Slate readers are going to want to get something that is for them—that is more designed for them—that looks at the story in a more “Slate-like” way. That’s not the only angle they’re going to want on a story, but when they’re at Slate, they’ll want a “Slatier” look at it.

The question is, How much of this kind of thing is your secondary work, and how much is your primary work? Slate has been doing aggregation-like activities from day one, but Slate itself also has a distinct sensibility and set of activities that it pursues on its own. With the kind of journalism and analysis that we do, there’s a huge, rich environment that Slate has created. “The Slatest” is one part of it, but it’s not the defining part of it. I think that the best media sites find a way to combine aggregation-like features with their own unique strength. That’s true of The Huffington Post, which does a ton of aggregation but also has a very organic set of blogs and articles, it’s true of The Atlantic Wire, it’s true of The Daily Beast…. There are very few sites that exist as stand-alone aggregation efforts that I think are any good.

The Drudge Report would have been the first one, right?

Oh, Drudge is so interesting. There’s no original content there, right. Drudge is just a different thing altogether! He just has this incredible curatorial mind. Drudge, and sites like Arts & Letters Daily—those sites which don’t repackage content at all, they just link out—those are also very valuable, but those are a different kind of thing altogether.

Do you ever fear that there will be, if not more websites, more people on staff at websites who are devoting their days to linking and summarizing, more than people producing original content? What if we run out of people doing original content and there’s nothing left to link to?

That’s one of the things that I think about when I’m talking to young journalists, is that so many of them are going to go into jobs that are not reporting jobs, or even editing jobs—they are aggregation jobs. That’s a worry. But at the same time that that’s happening, there’s been just a massive proliferation of new journalistic content. It’s not exactly what we had before, but there’s a huge explosion of blogs and a huge explosion of hyperlocal journalism, sometimes by amateurs—some of which is very synthetic, but some of which is very original.

So I’m not panicked about it in any sense. There is less of certain kinds of journalism today than there was five or ten years ago—the city newspaper entrepreneurial reporting projects have been really hurt. But while there’s less original foreign reporting by newspapers, on the other hand, there’s a huge amount of amateur foreign reporting. There’s great work that people are doing of synthesizing on-the-ground citizen journalism and making it into a useful product for a general-interest audience.

The Osama raid Twitter feed is a classic example—there’s a citizen who is monitoring what’s going on in his neighborhood and writing about it, and it reaches an international audience almost instantly. So while it’s true that no one got paid for that, except for people who repackaged it and sold advertising off of it, I suppose, it had this quality of bringing news out to the world in a quick and useful way. So yes, it’s harder now to be a young journalist, and the kinds of jobs that young journalists are going into are not always super desirable. But there’s no shortage of journalism and good news writing being created.

So you’re saying, things might seem bleak from a student’s perspective, but the news is a force that will happen no matter what.


Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner